Sharlene Cannon has been walking through downtown Covington for the past three weeks, interviewing merchants, residents, chamber and government officials. She believes downtown has some big opportunities to exploit.
She also believes moving the Main Street Covington program, which is responsible for promoting and developing downtown, to under the governance of the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce will create benefits for both parties.
A 20-year Main Street manager-turned-consultant, Cannon was hired by the chamber to study its existing organization, Main Street Covington, and the downtown area to determine if moving the Main Street program from the city’s to the chamber’s control would work.
"There’s no reason to believe (Main Street) won’t be highly successful under the chamber. There are so many ways they can cross over," Cannon said.
"Tourism, of course, promotes downtown as well as everything in the county. Main Street does a lot of promotional things and has a lot of materials. Those two entities can work together," Cannon said.
"The economic development side of Main Street can certainly coordinate with economic developments (at the chamber). While the chamber’s focus is the entire county, and Main Street’s focus is just the downtown, if the chamber comes across something they know about and think would be good for downtown, they can refer to Main Street, which would be right here (at the chamber)."
Cannon is consolidating the information she’s gathered from the dozens of interviews she’s conducted — she still has a few more people to interview, including Covington City Council members and some other community leaders and residents — and will put together a formal report for the chamber.
"They’re already working together; they just don’t know. They’re after the same goals, mostly, and I haven’t seen any red flags or hurdles that can’t be overcome," Cannon said.
Chamber President Hunter Hall said Cannon was brought in to provide an objective eye, to determine if the chamber could handle another intense function in addition to its tourism functions, economic development and its traditional chamber-focused small business development.
"It’s a holistic decision, because the success of downtown affects everything we’re doing," Hall said.
As Newton County’s cultural center, downtown plays a big role in attracting new industries whose executives are looking for a unique place and a high quality of life.
ith the iconic Historic Courthouse serving as a popular backdrop for TV shows and movies, the downtown also anchors the county’s film-related tourism push.
Pulling the Main Street program under the chamber will also make the chamber a one-stop shop for prospective business owners, who will have experts to guide them on whether to locate downtown, on a major route in the county or close to the interstate.
"Sharlene pointed out the factor of impulse buying (by shoppers visiting downtown), which is fascinating when comparing downtown versus I-20, where people are coming in looking for a specific use. Most small business owners who have a dream are not thinking about that. They’re thinking about overhead and cost," Hall said. However, one of the most important benefits of having all these entities under one roof is the ability to plan comprehensively to drive the community forward. Hall gave examples of having workforce development contacts provide students interns from the Newton College and Career Academy to work at downtown businesses or to lead tourism tours.
Hiring a new manager
Cannon is also crafting a job description for the next Main Street manager — the program has had an interim manager since longtime leader Josephine Kelly left in May. Hall said the job opening will be posted nationally soon.
"We’re going to look far and wide," Hall said.
Asked about specific feedback she has received, Cannon said business owners echoed sentiments heard in every city across the United States, particularly when it came to parking.
Cannon agreed designated parking areas could use better signs, and she wonders if the parking deck by First Baptist Church could be better utilized. She said business owners need to work together to make sure staff members aren’t taking up prime spots, and the community needs to hash out whether it wants the two-hour downtown parking limit to be enforced.
However, she said parking is too often a scapegoat for other business problems.
"Merchants (around the nation) tend to blame everything on parking, instead of cleaning up their store(s), putting up a fresh coat of paint, repairing their awning and making sure their store is merchandised correctly," Cannon said. "Covington has to set itself apart."
Cannon said the town’s history, homes, square, Historic Courthouse and buildings are all great assets and are things the town can use to its advantage. She said small improvements such as planters with flowers, more benches, and attractive store windows can make a big difference in creating a place people want to shop and hang out.
Events are always a topic of discussion among merchants, and while the community needs to decide how many events it wants to have, Cannon said merchants need to focus on how to take advantage of the crowds that events bring.
Another positive for Covington is the strong downtown presence of the arts. She said continuing to leverage those assets to create a cultural presence downtown will help keep the area vibrant.